Henry Sias is currently running for the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, which hears civil and criminal cases. A victory would make him the first trans man elected to a judicial position in all of the United States.
But the more interesting news here—or at least the more likely to be missed while the county fixates on his gender—is that part of his platform comes with a content warning. If elected, Sias tells NewNowNext that he plans to prioritize self-care for those involved in the criminal justice system.
“You know the breadth of things that happen in the criminal courts, right?” he asks, pausing as if he’s about to say something terrible.
“I'm sure you've seen the show Law and Order: SVU, or you're at least familiar with it,” he explains, using the TV show as point of reference. According to Sias, sometimes, courtrooms are split up by geography; other times, they’re divided by type of crime. (He offers a content warning as a courtesy even though he isn’t about to get into anything too specific.) There are courtrooms that handle sexual violence and intimate partner violence. Some judges see homicide after homicide.
“One of the things I want to do on the bench is to push self-care and awareness of secondary trauma as a new norm,” he says. “I think self-care is something that lawyers neglect to their own peril and to the peril sometimes of their client.”
His assertion that cases weigh on judges emotionally has merit to it. An alumni survey from the National Judicial College found that nearly half of respondents (45%) suffered from secondary traumatic stress as a result of serving as a judge.
For many queer people, the term “self-care” is practically built into the lexicon, inherited or spoon fed to us when we come out of the closet. But for a potential judge, acknowledging both the humanity of the court and his own vulnerability is exceedingly unusual. Judges are not supposed to be people, not political, and definitely not personal—unless they put us in the unfortunate position of digging up their pasts, like recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Sias, however, wants you to know him, and not just his origin story or the details of his ostensibly happy marriage. He notes with pride that he thinks all of his exes have supported or endorsed his campaign. He talks openly about how going to therapy helped him be a better lawyer.
“I thought that was the responsible thing to do given that I was a solo practitioner, and I had these cases and clients to take care of,” he says.
Sias grew up poor in Detroit, Michigan. After his father lost his job as air traffic controller in 1981, his his mom raised him mostly on her own in low-income housing. He went to five different schools in just six years.
He studied English at Western Michigan University and eventually found his way to Yale Law School, where he worked with other students on an amicus brief in the Lawrence v. Texas case, which ended the last state sodomy laws in 2003. He has since clerked for justices in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and even co-founded a non-profit that performs expungements for low-income Philadelphians.
But his campaign commercial doesn’t open with those achievements as most political ads do. It starts with him shaving.
It wasn’t until he was 35 years old that Sias finally came out as transgender. “My name wasn’t always Henry,” he says in a voiceover.
Mirrors are ubiquitous in transgender storytelling, as if we are unable understand a trans person coming into themselves without seeing them stare at their own faces. But in Sias’ case, these mundane images are significant. His willingness be out and unguarded as a transgender man seeking judicial office is in itself historic. He talks about how while he rose in prominence as an attorney, he was trying to be, what everyone else wanted. He transitioned for himself.
“Men like me, transgender men, are not supposed to be visible,” he says in his commercial. “We have never won an election for state or federal office, let alone judge.”
Transgender women are already cracking the political code. The first transgender woman to serve openly as judge, Houston’s Phyllis Frye, was appointed nine years ago.
Back in 2017, Virginian Danica Roem made history as the first trans woman elected to a state legislature. She has since been joined by Rep. Brianna Titone in Colorado and Reps. Gerri Cannon and Lisa Bunker in New Hampshire.
“There is a huge lack of trans man who are elected around the country,” Meloy tells NewNowNext. “Not only being trans, but being a trans man who stepped up, I think [Sias’ election] would give so much hope and so much inspiration to so many trans youth who are seeing the president of the United States demonize them.”
This year marks Sias’ second bid for court. In 2017, he lost a crowded race for nine seats out of 27 candidates by just over 4,000 votes. His success in the May 21 primary would likely guarantee him a win in November, as the city leans heavily Democratic.
This time, Sias hopes he has the name recognition to push him to the top. Then, he promises to get to work.
Sias sees potential in a legal system that many feel has failed queer people. That system needs to be fair, he says. When it isn’t, we need to admit that.
“I'm not going to be able to go in there on day one and sort of up turn all the tables,” he says. “But I do hope, like any child of divorce, to refuse to play by the rules, where we all pretend that this is okay, and nobody says what we all know to be true.”